Saturday, January 28, 2012

Composition: Practice what you Preach!

For almost all of the past year I have been studying visual composition. Reading books and everything I can locate on the Internet. Taking part in forum discussions regarding composition and looking over images and sketches related to composition. The one thing I haven't been doing is practising composition.

During my first year of watercolour painting I discovered that nothing but nothing beats practice. You can purchase the finest brushes, the best watercolour paint, expensive palettes, top quality paper, watch DVD's by great artists, read their books, debate the pros and cons of a particular artists techniques, but unless you put brush-water-paint to paper, you will never learn how to paint.

Also during that first year, I watched with amazement and eventually a growing irritation, one member of an artist on-line forum, debate, research, discuss, and expound on: brushes, pigments, paper, palettes, easels, and even water containers. During that year, R never posted a single painting, but he became and 'expert' on most-all things watercolour, holding forth at great length about almost anything related to watercolour painting. Then one day, one of the forum moderators grew tired of his opinions and publicly challenged him: “Put up or shut up!” This resulted in another very long complaint thread on how it was wrong to insist that members should post their work to the forum. Eventually R relented and posted one rather weak example of his work. Shortly there after, he offered all his large collection of painting supplies for sale on the forum swap shop and that was the last he was heard from.

There was nothing wrong with most of R's posts. They were knowledgeable and well researched. The only problem with R is he never painted or made any used of the excellent brushes he had accumulated. Malcolm Gladwell in 'Outliers' describes the 10,000 hour rule. Basically it takes 10,000 hours of practice to be come expert at a skill. Larry Seiler advises to paint 120 paintings as you need this many to work through your mistakes. Whatever the number, if you want to learn to paint watercolour paintings, paint watercolour paintings! Nothing else works!

...and if you want to learn composition, you need to practice composition, and I haven't practising composition until this week when I re-started attending the local adult education watercolour painting class. I missed all but one of the autumn classes due to working on our new (to us) condo. In fact, I didn't paint from July until November. Starting back painting was a big problem. I found it very difficult to get back into the grove of painting every day. With the start of the winter session of adult education classes, I decided to go along, to force myself to paint more. A New Years resolution to myself was to paint at least 4 hours a day.

I did manage to attend class for 1 day in the autumn session. The new instructor was offering a lesson series of near 'paint by numbers' watercolour subjects. A pre-composed scene with instructions to draw of trace an outline, paint this wash in this colour. Then... The same type of lessons I had from my first tutor. Zero creativity and self expression and in my opinion little learning. Oh you learn to paint a painting that looks like the one the instructor painted, but you aren't learning how to paint. A Bob Ross watercolour lesson. I didn't like it then and I don't like it now, so I decided that I would use each weekly lesson as a composition exercise. Each week I would take the components in the lesson and design a new and hopefully interesting composition.
  • I would look at the original components, think about how some or all of them could be rearranged into and interesting design.  
  • I would do some thumbnail sketches to try out these design ideas.
  • Would a format change be of benefit?
  • Do value plan/pattern need to be changed?
  • What abstract armature will work to organize the space division?
This the image the tutor supplied for us to paint for this week.
I decided I would try to paint within the two and half hours of the class, a completely different composition based on the photo that the instructor provided. Needless to say, I didn't manage to finish the painting, but I did manage to make a start. After a few minutes thought, my could see that a quarter sheet portrait format wasn't going to work for me. I envisioned a over long, 2:1 portrait format for my new composition. Here is the page from my sketch book with my thumbnails.

I admit that they are not the best thumbnails you will find. I hope you can see from the bottom left sketch that I wanted an over tall portrait painting, but I only had quarter sheets of watercolour paper with me, so I resigned myself to a working within that format in the classroom. I sketched a best fit image onto the quarter sheet, and with half an ear listening to the tutor I proceeded to paint this rather poor watercolour.

The white block near the bottom was going to be the buggy. I added a stone wall in the foreground as that was what the rest of the class was doing at the time and my brook in the middle ground didn't work out either. Thoroughly discussed with the results, I put this project aside for a day. After a break and more thought, I did a full size contour sketch with the 2:1 format I originally envisioned.

Using this sketch, I painted my second attempt at this subject. After some time, I realised this this was working either. I would say that the four horizontal divisions is one too many divisions.
Which brings me to my final offering for this particular subject. It's still and over tall portrait format but now reduced to a foreground, middle ground, and background-sky. It thinks this one works.
I hope you enjoyed this little design exercise and maybe there was a small lesson in it for you.

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